Danny Gatton

TrackAlbum
Sweet Georgia BrownThe Humbler Stakes His Claim
Harlem NocturneCruisin' Deuces
Sun MedleyCruisin' Deuces
Land Of Make Believe/TequilaRedneck Jazz Explosion
Famous Blue Raincoat/The NutcrackerRedneck Jazz Explosion
Homage To Charlie ChristianUnfinished Business
Nitpickin'Unfinished Business CD
Tom's SambaOh No! More Blazing Telecasters
Funky Mama88 Elmira St.
The Simpsons88 Elmira St.

 

Danny Gatton photo

Danny “The Humbler” Gatton

 

 

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Danny Gatton playlist

 

 

Contributor: David Lewis

Author’s note: Due to the ridiculous border restrictions that streaming services can apply, I’ve found that albums I used to own are now unavailable in my region. As a result, the reader may find I have gaps in my discography here. Where possible, I’ve tried to include discussion about songs I can’t access, in the hope the readers might access them. My final 10 is made up of songs I am able to access. It’s still a list I’m very happy with.

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Well, here’s the king of guitar playing. He was known as ‘The Humbler’ because many great musicians deferred to his greatness. He never reached the rarefied heights of fame or financial success in his lifetime – the reasons are many and varied for this – but guitarists and other musicians listened with wonder and admiration, and not a little jealousy. He defies categorization. Jazz, country, rockabilly, rock, folk all appear in his playing – not just from song to song, but from verse to verse, and even bar to bar. Dizzying notes, leaving the listener shaking his or her head. One of the two or three guitarists where I have no idea what they are doing (Allan Holdsworth is another), Danny Gatton is one of the greatest guitarists to have ever lived. He was an inveterate tinkerer, ruining valuable guitars in his quest for tone and playability.

Danny was a local legend in the Washington D.C. area, a place which isn’t a music centre like, say, New York or Nashville. It had a thriving music scene, but not many can claim to have come from there. Emmylou Harris is an exception. So is Nils Lofgren and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Danny’s main rival, sometimes friend, sometimes enemy, was Roy Buchanan. Both men were to die early, both under tragic circumstances. Both by their own hand (although Roy’s death has been doubted as the suicide it was purported to be). Danny was a sheet metal worker by trade, but worked very hard on playing the guitar. He liked gigs within driving distance of his home. Often he’d drive to Nashville, say, do the gig, and drive home afterwards. He toured with Roger Miller, He had a stint in Los Angeles as a session player. But ultimately, he preferred working on his vintage and classic hot rods, working on guitars and staying around his small property with his wife and daughter. He was also an expert in American Indian artefacts and culture.

Danny Gatton guitar

Danny Gatton Signature Telecaster based on his customized 50s guitar

He was a pioneer of guitar effects, adding an effects panel to his 1952 Fender Telecaster. (A guitar of this year and type, in good condition, is currently worth around $75,000 US.) However, when lesser players started calling him Danny Gadget, he removed the panel and played essentially uneffected. He still played rings around everybody.

Words like ‘astonishing’ and ‘unbelievable’ and ‘amazing’ are used a lot with Danny’s playing. Although he employed singers, notably Billy Windsor, whose untimely death was a blow to Danny and may have contributed to his own untimely death. Danny preferred instrumentals but of course instrumentals don’t usually sell as well as vocals. With a strong band, he could be pushed into incredible musical highs.

So, how good was he? He loved jazz best, but also loved country, folk, rockabilly, rock and roll and blues. His first album (as Danny and the Fat Boys), American Music, was as clear a statement as a debut artist could make. I’m not sure any guitarist, with the possible exception of Davey Graham has more versatility than Danny Gatton. As much as I love Allan Holdsworth, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Brian May, they play within smaller ranges. Danny could play just about anything. While he could play with blinding speed, it wasn’t just flash – every note is part of a bigger composition. As is pointed out in his biography, “Unfinished Business”, he never threw away a note. He could be flashy and gimmicky, for example, watch this. In the top video, he uses the beer bottle as an impossible slide – and then cleans up the mess with a towel, using the towel to continue fretting notes. In the second, he uses two beer bottles. Watch both of them. It’s worth it.

Another example of his virtuosity is his take on Sweet Georgia Brown from the posthumous album Danny Gatton ‎- Live In 1977: The Humbler Stakes His Claim, recorded at the Austin City Limits concert that year but released in 2007. It starts off at a moderate, laid back tempo. By the third run through though, notes are flying off the fingerboard in a flurry of melody and harmony. The band keeps up. Danny is often described as a force of nature – here he demonstrates it.

His signature track was Harlem Nocturne; he recorded it several times, and the consensus is that the best version is the first version he recorded on his debut, American Music (1975). However, I like the one on Cruisin’ Deuces (1993). I also like the one on Oh No! More Blazing Telecasters.

Danny was a rock and roller at heart – he didn’t think much of the Beatles, much preferring American music. His Sun Medley from Cruisin’ Deuces, featured Mystery Train, My Baby Left Me and That’s All Right. Billy Windsor sings, and Danny manages to play seemingly impossible rhythms and leads. All your favourite rockabilly players’ styles are in there – from Scotty Moore to James Burton, Cliff Gallup to Duane Eddy. But Danny is not a slavish copier of styles. It is a unique and breathtaking approach.

His collaborations often produced magic: Redneck Jazz Explosion (1995), which featured lap steel player Buddy Emmons (called the best in the world by Danny on multiple occasions), showed Danny at the top of his game. Land Of Make Believe/Tequila is a great example of his approach to this type of jazz. Danny and Buddy swap lines, not competitively but in a supportive and collaborative way that pushes both players to their respective heights. But before you think Danny is all speed and volume, his take on Famous Blue Raincoat/The Nutcracker demonstrates a delicacy of touch and subtlety that reminds us just how powerful he was as a player.

From the Unfinished Business LP, I have to choose Homage To Charlie Christian. Christian was a deep influence on Danny Gatton – Benny Goodman’s guitarist was one of the first players to play single line notes. Again, not a slavish imitation, but the young Texan, who like Danny died too young, would be proud. Christian was also a pioneer of be-bop. Danny preferred jazz players like Christian and Lenny Breau, despite being a rock and roller. The opener on the Unfinished Business CD, Nitpickin’, is deservedly a fan favourite and the adjectives just don’t do it justice.

Another successful collaboration was with Tom Principato: Blazing Telecasters (1990) and Oh No!, More Blazing Telecasters (2005). Principato is almost Danny’s equal on guitar (which is saying something). Tom’s Samba from Oh No!… shows Danny’s mastery of fusion rock. He enjoyed working with Tom but he preferred his rural life in Washington, working on his cars, playing with local musicians, and spending time with his family. His time as a session musician was not a happy one. He didn’t enjoy playing with Roger Miller, nor did he particularly like the L.A. session scene. He didn’t understand music theory – he was an almost purely instinctive player – but found the conversations revolving around music theory, confusing, boring and ultimately fruitless. He enjoyed the company and friendship of Arlen Roth who shared a deep and abiding interest in cars.

In 1991, Danny Gatton signed a seven album contract with Elektra; 88 Elmira St. was his first release that year. He disliked being on a major label – deadlines, markets etc. – but this was his biggest seller and perhaps his best album. It has a great opener in Funky Mama, a stomping R&B number, with wonderful playing. Bill Holloman on sax is a standout here. Another track from this album to highlight is the theme from The Simpsons. It changes the arrangement in a way that Danny Elfman’s composition shouldn’t work, but does. Danny had an affinity for cartoon themes – he’d often throw the theme from Linus And Lucy into his solos, just to see who was listening. The keen listener might also hear Foggy Mountain Breakdown or snatches from surf music or movie themes. Unfortunately, this album, nor the follow up Cruisin’ Deuces sold well, so he was dropped from the label.

When I pick a virtuoso player, it is in part because I admire their authority over their chosen instrument – Jack Bruce on bass; Bill Monroe, David Grisman, Sam Bush or Chris Thile (Punch Brothers) on mandolin; J.D. Crowe, Béla Fleck or Noam Pikelny (Punch Brothers) on banjo; or Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Allan Holdsworth, Bill Frisell on guitar. (There are many more on top of these.) All play with a commanding authority of their instruments. None, however, play with the authority that Danny Gatton brought to his instrument. It is perhaps true that one of the factors that prevented him from greater success was his diversity – he couldn’t be marketed to a particular demographic as his music was too stylistically diverse.

Danny’s death, soon after his friend and rival Roy Buchanan, was, as most suicides are, inexplicable and pointless. He was a man of many contradictions. The seemingly laid back musician who strove for perfection. The man who at times hated the guitar. The man who obsessed over every little detail of the guitar for the best sound.

The music industry – at least those who were aware of him – was devastated. Danny Gatton could get the admiration of players like Jon Bon Jovi, Slash from Guns N’ Roses, and Aerosmith. He was also revered by veterans. His dogged personal vision (much like Allan Holdsworth) prevented him from the mass appeal that a more conciliatory approach might have yielded. Nonetheless, he leaves behind his brilliant studio albums and dozens of bootlegs, sessions and videos.

The interested listener is directed to Ralph Heibutzki’s “Unfinished Business: The Life And Times Of Danny Gatton” for more information on this remarkable musician.

Danny Gatton photo

 

“Danny Gatton comes closer than anyone else to being the best guitar player that ever lived.” Steve Vai

 

Danny Gatton (1945–1994)

 

Danny Gatton: the definitive website

“The Humbler – Danny Gatton” feature documentary coming soon

Tributes to Danny Gatton in the documentary trailer

Danny Gatton Corner – Ralph Heibutzki

Danny Gatton biography (iTunes)

David Lewis is a regular contributor to Toppermost. A professional guitarist, mandolinist, banjoist and bassist, he plays everything from funk to country in several bands and duos. He is a professional historian and a public speaker on crime fiction, adventure fiction, philosophy art, history and popular culture. More of his writing can be found at his rarely updated website.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Jeff Beck, Jack Bruce, Sam Bush, Eric Clapton, J.D. Crowe, Duane Eddy, Béla Fleck, Bill Frisell, David Grisman, Allan Holdsworth, Nils Lofgren, Bill Monroe, Punch Brothers

TopperPost #811

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Sep 7, 2019

    How good is Danny as a rockabilly guitarist? Some magnificent stuff here. Thanks for introducing us to such a brilliant musician.

  2. Rob Millis
    Sep 23, 2019

    A great read; a little known fact is that Danny Gatton and Jack Casady were teenage buddies, in different bands. Three versions of a tale do the rounds regularly, but both start with Danny’s bass player being unavailable one night for a duo gig and he rang Jack, then a six-stringer himself. The first variant of the tale tells that Danny said “Come on Jack, it’s only got four strings, it can’t be that difficult”. The second and third variants of the tale have Jack and Danny (oh dear, profane rhyming slang alert) intending to do the gig both playing guitar, but finding the club had a Fender bass there and either flipping a coin for it (variant two) or Jack being intrigued enough to have a go unprompted (final variant). This was about 1959/60 and easy to forget that Leo Fender had only been offering the new-fangled fretted electric bass for seven or eight years! But there – a momentous occasion, whichever of the three tales is the closest. I bet the punters in the club didn’t realise just what they were witnessing unfold in front of their eyes…

    • David Lewis
      Oct 4, 2019

      There are so many stories about Danny – some of which must be true. It wouldn’t surprise me if all of those variants had a part in the story.

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